Is there a purer expression of hope than opening a theatre in the midst of a pandemic? Hope that the health crisis passes, that the stricken sector recovers, that theatre makers will remain and audiences will return? That’s hope, surely – or, as Georgia Leanne Harris, artistic director of the new Golden Goose theatre describes it, “a level of blind optimism”.
British theatre makers would be forgiven for having the hope pummelled out of them by this grim year. Yet optimism ripples through the gloom. Projects announced before lockdown – such as the Purple Door in Liverpool, the Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot and a second venue for London’s Bridge theatre – are still on the cards. So is Reading’s new Rep theatre. “We remain on course to open next year,” says artistic director Paul Stacey. “It’ll be Reading’s first new theatre and cultural hub in a generation – we’re hoping it might bring people together after a winter of isolation.”
Occupying an airy hall in a south London pub, the Golden Goose had originally planned to open in June. “Then it got to March, and the world shut,” says Harris. “We thought, do we shelve this altogether? But the chance to open a new theatre was too good an opportunity to miss.” So work to convert the space continued as planned, and the theatre finally opened its doors this week.
Michael Kingsbury, the theatre’s elegant, silver-haired founder, showed me around the empty space with its high, square stage and an 80-strong audience capacity that will be halved by social distancing. “The good side of this nightmarish scenario is that it’s given time for reflection,” he said. “Venues have communicated more, sharing advice and information in a way that’s never happened before. I think it will bear fruit and there’ll be an explosion of creativity. There’s a lot of passion, energy – and anger.”
The theatre opened this week with Mark Lockyer’s autobiographical solo, Living With the Lights On; subsequent shows will include the premiere of Howerd’s End, about comedian Frankie Howerd. Planning, usually central to an artistic director’s role, cannot thrive in the presence of government’s grab-and-bodge policymaking. “We’re not able to do the usual thing of planning up to two years in advance,” Harris acknowledges. “But what’s exciting is that we can be reactive – we’re getting new ideas and companies crawling out of the woodwork.”
Theatre makers responded to Harris’s frustration after Rishi Sunak implied theatre was not “viable” in September. “I want to facilitate as much art as I am able,” Harris tweeted. “Even if your idea seems wild or unattainable, I’d really like to make possible what we can. Let’s get different voices in!” Very soon 300 proposals had pinged into her inbox. “A lot of artists are saying we still want to make something, what is the new template? [The pandemic] is a new challenge that we’re going to overcome,” she says.
What kind of theatre sits on the other side? Some venues and audiences crave familiar pleasures, others are excited about a new world. “The pandemic has shone a light on the problems within the system,” argues Karl Falconer, general manager of the Purple Door in Liverpool. “It’s time to experiment and throw caution to the wind.”
The Purple Door certainly seems to be hurling caution aside. In this former bookshop, the performance space won’t be separated from the cafe or bar and it will be programmed by a community board rather than an artistic director. “I hope we’re going to see the end of a top-down leadership model,” says Falconer. “Theatres need to give themselves over to the community.”
Tickets will be free, and Falconer promises “no more than a £5,000 gap between the highest and lowest paid member of staff” and that his own salary “will never rise above the local average wage for Liverpool”. The venture is financed by social impact funding plus support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation; it is hoped that bar takings will provide income that would have come from ticket sales.
Falconer is currently a teacher (“I work every day with people who don’t give two hoots about theatre”) and his concerns have been a long time brewing. “How can people get their first foot in the industry? How can a community get engaged in a meaningful way?” He feels that the sector’s current travails demonstrate its estrangement from working-class audiences. “If theatre was as relevant as we thought it was, people would be up in arms at what is happening now,” he argues. “Theatre took audiences for granted for far too long.”
Enforced thinking time has developed the Purple Door’s ethos – notably in terms of the shared performance and social space. “It was inspired by a trip to a hostel in Copenhagen,” says Falconer. “Seeing how the space was multi-use, and didn’t suggest what was right or wrong. A theatre space is often designed to uphold rules. But what happens if we can’t hide our audience in the dark? My hope is that it will produce a vibrant space, a joint enterprise – better for artists and audiences.”
The venture will offer showcases for local actors, homegrown Shakespeare and an original piece each year created around a chosen Liverpool street. Falconer bubbles with ideas – but he doesn’t want the Purple Door to replicate his own tastes – “it needs to be more daring than that”. Despite the city’s current lockdown, Falconer plans to open the theatre next spring with a season that includes a revival of his Liverpool-set production of Hamlet.
While these theatres were navigating the future, south London’s Garden theatre popped up with the first London show of the summer. Peter Bull, now its artistic director, explains: “[Director] Steven Dexter phoned me and said, ‘They’ve just announced we can do outdoor theatre – where do we know that’s got a beer garden?’ I thought, ‘I’m sure the Eagle’s got one’.”
“Do you know the Eagle’s history?” Bull murmurs. “Used to be a sex club. It was filthy.” Now more polite, the Vauxhall pub had just renovated its patio area for summer, which meant it was able to welcome the musical Fanny and Stella in August. It was followed by Pippin – Stephen Schwartz’s Broadway musical scaled down for a cast of six. The snug beer garden seats up to 55, although “the seating plan changes every day depending on the bookings. When they’re all singles it’s a nightmare, because each one is a bubble. Last night, we had two groups of six, which I love.”
A multi-show venue during a pandemic involves a shoal of new rules. The cast of Pippin get ready on the first floor, that of the later show – the revue Naked Boys Singing – in the basement, and they stay apart. With winter in mind, the theatre added a roof over the stage and some heating – especially, Bull says, for the benefit of the Naked Boys (“we don’t want shrinkage”).
Although performances in London theatres are currently able to continue under the new three-tier system of restrictions, another lockdown could bring an end to that. “We don’t know if we’ll be open next week,” Bull says. “You can’t plan anything.” When curfew came in, he jiggled show times to hit the 10pm cut-off – Bull must be the only producer groaning at prolonged applause. “There was a standing ovation in the middle of the show and I was like, stop milking it! We haven’t got time for this!”
But for now, the Garden grows. Bull plans an adult panto, plus the off-Broadway musical Next Thing You Know, staged as a showcase for recent theatre graduates. “It’s all about giving hope to the industry.” Isn’t it hard to hang on to hope right now? He shrugs: “What are you going to do?”
Next Thing You Know is at the Garden theatre, London, 20-31 October. Howerd’s End is at the Golden Goose, London, 27-31 October.